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Ontario government wants drug patents taken out of Canada-EU deal

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Hoskins and Matthews to Harper: "refrain from making changes to the pharmaceutic

The online news journal iPolitics.ca reports there is more in the way of a Canada-European Union trade and investment deal than a disagreement over beef and cheese.

Contrary to reports earlier this week that the only remaining hurdle in the CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) talks is how much Canadian meat Europe is willing to import tariff free (and for how much European cheese heading the other way), some provinces are still restive about extending patents on brand name drugs, among other issues they feel have not been resolved.

"A number of complex matters are still under discussion in these negotiations, including issues related to patents for pharmaceutical products, which have important implications for Ontario," wrote Ontario ministers Eric Hoskins (Economic Development, Trade and Employment) and Deb Matthews (Health) in a joint letter to the federal government dated May 2, acquired by Ipolitics reporter BJ Siekierski.

That was only eight days ago, which puts International Trade Minister Ed Fast's statements -- "We're making good progress, trying to bridge the remaining gaps that have to be overcome, and there's a high level of goodwill on both sides to complete these negotiations in the short term" -- and a rumoured end-of-June conclusion date into question.

The Ontario ministers add in their letter that, "It remains to be seen what specific intellectual property provisions might be included by the federal government in the final agreement," and that Ontario has been vocal about its concerns regarding the potential impacts on provincial budgets.

"Ontario has asked the federal government to refrain from making changes to the pharmaceutical patent regime that impose additional financial costs on Ontario or that would negatively impact our province's economy."

Provincial action on CETA and drug costs

Council of Canadians health campaigner Adrienne Silnicki and I met with the Ontario government in 2011 to discuss the drug issue. An online action on the Council webiste since September 2012 has asked all provincial governments to reject new patent protections in CETA. And we staged a political action on Parliament Hill last year to make the case that the premiers were gambling with health care if they agreed to European demands.

The truth is there is absolutely no reason for Canada to agree to the intellectual property rights changes the EU is seeking, which are estimated to add between $1 and $3 billion annually to the cost of brand-name drugs in Canada. For the most part, those extra costs come from keeping cheaper generic versions off the shelf longer. Canada meets international standards for the protection of intellectual property, including patents, trade marks, copyright and so-called geographical indications.

India says no to TRIPS+ rules in EU trade deal

The European case became even weaker after the Indian government declared last month it would not go a step beyond global intellectual property rules agreed to at the World Trade Organization. These rules in the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights require 20-year patents for pharmaceuticals and a way to enforce them. But there is flexibility at the WTO for countries to find a balance between protecting intellectual property and ensuring affordable access to cheap medicine. The EU, on behalf of its large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, uses bilateral trade negotiations to try to wipe out much of that flexibility.

Some countries give in to the pressure. India did not. The Hindu Business Line reported that Indian Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, "after his meeting with EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht in Brussels on Monday (April 15), ruled out going beyond the TRIPS pact or changing Indian laws. This would put to rest speculation that flexibilities offered to the EU may make life-saving drugs unaffordable in the country."

We know if Canada took the same position in the CETA negotiations it would be extremely popular. According to a poll we commissioned with the Canadian Health Coalition last September, 69 per cent of Canadians would oppose a Canada-EU trade deal that extended drug patents. If the provinces can be convinced to take the same position as Ontario, it could force the federal government to do the right thing when (we fear) the Conservatives' impulse is to get a deal done quickly despite the costs.

TAKE ACTION: Make sure all provinces and territories stand up to Big Pharma in CETA

To send a letter right now to your premier, trade minister and opposition party leaders demanding they keep drug patents out of CETA, click here to go to our updated online action.

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